The Role of Critical Thinking in Children’s Risky Play

Lu-Ann Randall



With The Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians, the Council of Australian Governments articulated their combined position on the importance of young Australians becoming “successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens” (Goal 2, Ministerial Council on Education, 2008, pp. 7-8). The subsequent Early Years Learning Framework thus identified that through the vehicle of play, with worthwhile and challenging experiences which encourage children to take risks, their higher-level and critical thinking skills can be promoted (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15). Little attention, however, has been paid to the potential of fostering critical thinking during risky outdoor play, to which children are naturally drawn, as the literature instead emphasises dialogic learning for this purpose. This paper provides a brief overview of critical thinking, risky play and outdoor learning in the Kindergarten context, arguably the ideal time to establish these important foundations for learning, and then presents Mc Bride’s critical thinking schema as a theoretical framework for exploring and supporting children’s critical thinking during risky play, with further suggestions for future research.


Keywords: Critical thinking, Risky Play, Kindergarten, Outdoor Learning, Mc Bride, Mosaic



Critical thinking and risky play in the outdoors have each a pivotal role supporting children in becoming life long learners. Kellert, (2006, p. 69) puts forward the strongest connection between the two, stating “no other aspect of a child’s life offers this degree of consistent but varied changes for critical thinking and problem solving,” however in his context, the catalyst for critical thinking is linked to the affordances of nature itself, to be identified, classified, observed, interpreted. There seems to be a gap in research exploring critical thinking being utilised or developed through risky outdoor play in Kindergarten. There are inferences in the research between critical thinking and risky play: for example, Dietze, Pye, & Yochoff state “risk-taking is positively associated with developing critical thinking skills”, citing Ungar (Ungar, 2009; Ungar, 2010 cited in 2013, p. 1), although he actually refers to ‘thinking’ without elaborating on the possibility of critical thinking.


Critical Thinking

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) highlights that play “provides a supportive environment where children can ask questions, solve problems and engage in critical thinking” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15), relating to Outcomes 2 and 5.

There are numerous definitions of critical thinking, from the quite simplistic critical thinking is the ability to make sound decisions and problem solve, to the Delphi Report, which lists cognitive skills involved in critical thinking: (1) interpretation, (2) analysis, (3) evaluation, (4) inference, (5) explanation and (6) self-regulation (Facione, 1990, p. 4).

Mulnix summarises multiple perspectives including Scriven, Paula and Elder, Vaughan, Petress, Phelan and Willingham with “critical thinking is a process, a skilled activity of thought. It includes a commitment to using reason in the formulation of our beliefs” (Mulnix, 2012, p. 471).

Beyond a mere set of skills, the EYLF states that dispositions are “enduring habits of mind and actions, and tendencies to respond in characteristic ways to situations, for example, maintaining an optimistic outlook, being willing to persevere, approaching new experiences with confidence” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 10).

Perkins, Jay and Tishman (1993, pp. 2-3) propose an unpacking of the EYLF statement, suggesting a “triadic dispositional theory,” comprised of ability, inclination and sensitivity. Ability is the capability and skill needed to carry through on a behaviour, inclination is the tendency to behave a certain way, and sensitivity is the alertness of the appropriate occasion for exhibiting the behaviour (McBride, Xiang, & Wittenburg, 2002, pp. 30-31).

Perkins et al. (1993, p. 6) triadic model identifies seven broad thinking dispositions. They are: (1) be broad and adventurous; (2) sustain intellectual curiosity; (3) clarify and seek understanding; (4) be planful and strategic; (5) be intellectually careful; (6) seek and evaluate reasons; and (7) be metacognitive.

Research in cognitive psychology identified that learners who monitor and regulate their cognitive processing appropriately during task performance are more successful than those who do not, further highlighting the importance of metacognition when exploring critical thinking (McBride, 1992, p. 115)

McBride cautiously posited that critical thinking in physical education be defined as reflective thinking that is used to make reasonable and defensible decisions about movement tasks or challenges. Reflective refers to the ability to draw upon information from one’s general and domain-specific knowledge areas. Reasonable implies a logical thought process, and defensible refers to being held accountable for the decisions made from the critical-thinking process.

Benefits of critical thinking

A program that has children learning by resolving cognitive conflicts through experiences, reflection and metacognition has critical thinking at the heart of its teaching and learning process (Davis-Seaver, Smith, & Leflore, 2001, p. 2).

To Matthew Lipman, critical thinking is needed to help distinguish, between the  information received, as to what is relevant according to the needs of the situation. “So critical thinking is a tool for countering unconsidered actions and thoughts” (Lipman, 1988, 1995 cited in Daniel & Auriac, 2011, p. 6). The educator aims, by fostering critical thinking skills and dispositions, to develop independent thinkers who can participate in constructive scepticism and reflection (Daniel & Auriac, 2011, p. 420), encouraging metacognitive dialogues with oneself (Mulnix, 2012, p. 473).

Risky Play

‘Risk’ has changed from a neutral term indicating the “probability of a given outcome”  (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike, & Sleet, 2012, p. 6425) to now, often conveying negative connotations (H. Little & Wyver, 2008, p. 34).   Risk in the context of risky play denotes a situation whereby a child can recognise a challenge, and makes a choice whether to participate, not knowing if the intended outcome can be achieved. This is in contrast to the more common use of the word to describe hazards, which is a situation that the child cannot visualise or predict, and thus cannot assess for themselves (D. J. Ball, Gill, & Spiegal, 2012, p. 28).

Risk is a natural part of children’s play (E. B. H. Sandseter, 2009, p. 92). Children often seek out opportunities for engaging in challenging and risky play, which helps develop their knowledge of the world around them (D. J. Ball et al., 2012, p. 8).  Risky play can be described as thrilling and exciting experiences involving risk of physical injury (E B H Sandseter & Kennair, 2011, p. 258), “play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing of the limits, exploring boundaries and learning about risk” (D. Ball, 2002, p. 158; Little & Wyver, 2008, p. 1).

Risky play predominantly takes place outdoors, often as adventurous and challenging experiences, with children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the edge of the feeling of being out of control and overcoming fear (Coster & Gleeve, 2008, p. 9; E. B. H. Sandseter, 2009, p. 95; Stephenson, 2003, p. 3),  French Sociologist Roger Caillois (2001, p. 138) suggests that the sensation of being out of control, disrupted and disoriented, which he terms ilinx, can be a significant element of the play.

Categories of Risky Play

The below categories are from Sandseter’s research (2007, pp. 242-245), which included observing children and interviewing them in regard to risky play, since becoming an international reference for this area of research.

  • Great Heights – Climbing, jumping, balancing, hanging
  • High Speed – Swinging, sliding, running, bikes, skating
  • Dangerous Tools – Cutting, poking, whipping, sawing, lashing, tying
  • Dangerous Elements – Elevation change, water, fire
  • Mock-Aggression – Wrestling, fencing, play fighting, rough and tumble play
  • Disappearing / Getting Lost – Exploring unknown environments

As Tovey (2007, p. 101), explains “risk is socially constructed, and what is acceptable in one context, or culture may be unacceptable in another.” Every child is different, one child’s idea of a risk, may be ‘easy-peasy’ to another child. Gender socialisation plays a significant part, with research suggesting that “mothers are more encouraging of risk taking by sons than daughters and they communicate more about injury risk to daughters than sons” (Morrongiello & Hogg, 2004, p. 104; Morrongiello, Zdzieborski, & Normand, 2010, p. 323). Risk is embedded with values, dictating to children as to what is consider appropriate or inappropriate. These factors are not unpacked and discussed further, as they are not the focus of this paper, however it needs to be noted they can have a significant impact on children’s participation in risky play.


Benefits of risky play

It’s acknowledged that risky play is essential in terms of children’s physical activity, independence, social and cognitive development and reducing learning difficulties (Gill, 2007; E B H Sandseter & Kennair, 2011, p. 260; E. B. H Sandseter, 2012; Tremblay et al., 2015, p. 6491). Opportunities to succeed and possibility to fail (Little, 2010, p. 8) are provided through risky play, with the outcome based on children’s individual choices, reasoning, and problem solving skills (Greenfield, 2004, p. 1).  Opportunities to to identify risk and manage risk, are invaluable in developing an understanding of how to navigate risks and avoid injuries (E B H Sandseter & Kennair, 2011, p. 260).

Risky play is beneficial to children’s development as it can help them cope with stressful, challenging situations, supporting their self-sufficiency (Gill, 2007, p. 16; Tremblay et al., 2015, p. 6491). Extending on that, is the possibility that risky play has an anti-phobic effect, that as a result of exposure to typically anxiety-eliciting stimuli, in combination with positive emotions (fearful joy, excitement and thrills), in a safe situation, children develop resilience and self confidence, learning to cope with potentially dangerous situations  (E B H Sandseter & Kennair, 2011, p. 262).

Lack of opportunity to engage in risky play, research explains, could lead to children who are “risk averse,” (Brussoni et al., 2015, p. 6491; Gill, 2007, p. 14; Lester & Russell, 2008, p. 1:31), have never learnt how to judge risks and manage them for themselves, and thus avoid risk in all aspects of their lives (England, 2008; Ungar, 2009, p. 264), or to children who seek out dangerous or hazardous locations to experience thrill (Gleave, 2008, p. 25; Ungar, 2009, p. 264).

Outdoor Learning

Outdoor learning is a broad term, and its definition varies depending on the underlying pedagogy of the of the program. In Kindergarten the term generally refers to the play space attached to the kindergarten, though there is a gradual shift to include the beyond, the ‘natural world’ or ‘wild areas’ that are utilised by Outdoor Kinder programs in their various guises, where children adventure away from the physical kinder building. Essential features of these programs are that “children spend long and regular periods of time in unstructured play” in natural environments, “ranging from weekly visits over a preschool term to an everyday all year round occurrence” (Elliott & Chancellor,  2012, p. 7).

Current focus on outdoor learning stems for many as a result of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods (Louv, 2006), in which he highlighted some disturbing childhood trends, such as obesity, depression and behaviour difficulties as a result of children’s limited opportunities for outdoor spontaneous play (for more information see

Benefits of outdoor learning

Since Louv’s book, there has been a plethora of research looking into the benefits of reconnecting children’s play with nature.  Within the research there are common themes as to the benefits for children playing outdoors;


Figure 1 Risk -Taking ‘easy peasy’ or a challenge
  • Self Confidence and Self esteem: children have freedom, time and space to learn and demonstrate independence, risk asses (Kellert, 2009, p. 377; O’Brien & Murray, 2007, p. 255; Rickinson, 2004, p. 6)
  • Personal, Social and Emotional skills: children gain increased awareness of the consequences of their actions on peers through team experiences such as sharing tools and participating in play, communication skills (O’Brien & Murray, 2007, p. 255; Roe & Aspinall, 2011, p. 550)
  • Motivation: nature tends to fascinate children and they developed a keenness to participate and the ability to concentrate over longer periods of time (O’Brien & Murray, 2007, p. 255)
  • Physical skills and Movement: improvements characterised by the development of physical stamina and gross and fine motor skills (Fjørtoft, 2004, p. 38; Kellert, 2009, p. 377; O’Brien & Murray, 2007, p. 255)
  • Cognitive: knowledge and understanding about natural surroundings – space, themselves, seasonal changes (Kellert, 2009, p. 377; O’Brien & Murray, 2007, p. 255)
  • Restoration and stress reduction: alleviation of ADD and ADHD symptoms (Strife & Downey, 2009, p. 106; Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001, p. 75; Weinstein, 2015)
  • Affective impacts: changes and development of attitudes, beliefs, and values (Rickinson, 2004, p. 22; Wyver et al., 2010, p. 1)
  • Sensory Experience: ability to explore engaging all senses (Lovell, O’Brien, & Owen, 2010, p. 15)

There is clear rationale for children to be engaged in outdoor learning, but there are also concerns. Increased traffic is seen as a real danger (Little, 2015, p. 33; Wyver et al., 2010, p. 4), as too stranger-danger (Tremblay et al., 2015, p. 6484), as locations for spontaneous play are being reduced to designated, isolated areas that are difficult for children to access independently. In other countries there is inequity of access to green spaces because of potential risks such as pollution and crime to which children would be exposed (Strife & Downey, 2009, p. 113; Tremblay et al., 2015, p. 6485).

Within the Kindergarten there are other barriers: adult expectations of academic learning, which can be both families and educators; that learning happens indoors; cultural expectations that children need to be clean and tidy; health concerns – they might catch a cold or hurt themselves; and so forth. Numerous research articles claim that Educators’ concerns about litigation, in addition to gender and personality, impact on their willingness to offer children risky outdoor play (e.g. Little, Sandseter, & Wyver, 2012; E B H Sandseter, 2014).

Why focus on critical thinking and risky outdoor play in kindergarten

Brain research states that foundations for self-regulation, social interactions and cognitive learning are built on early experiences between birth and school age (Medicine & Council, 2015, p. 180).  Although children’s ongoing development is not cemented by these early experiences, the patterns established can be persistent and have lifelong influence (AIHW, 2015, p. 1).  Current research indicates our brains retain the capacity to adapt and change as we grow older, but acknowledges it may prove difficult to rewire earlier developed brain structures (Fox, Levitt, & Nelson, 2010, p. 35). Lester, Russell & Bernard Van Leer agree with the EYLF that play is the way, explaining that play creates a brain that has increased “flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life” (2010, p. 9).

As Ryan & Deci (2000, p. 56) point out, “From birth onward, humans … are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful creatures, displaying a ubiquitous readiness to learn and explore”. Children are keen to explore the world around them through physical and mental play, and their impulse is always to ask ‘why?’  (Maynard, 2007, p. 382; Rinaldi, 2012, p. 240).

As famous astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist…” but through ‘education’ their natural wonder and enthusiasm can be fostered or destroyed. ‘Learning through play’ is one of the practices most commonly known in the EYLF (DEEWR, 2009, p. 46). What is meant by play? Huizinga explains, “Play is a function of living but… [avoids] …definition…[Play] remains distinct from all other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life” (1930 p.6 cited in Ortlieb, 2010, p. 241). Huizinga famously wrote “let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing” and the possible realisation of this concept is more prevalent in the early years, though perhaps not the quantity of ‘freedom’ he advocated (Huizinga, 1949, pp. 7-8).

The value of play has been well documented, linking to developmental benefits (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15). There is debate, however, about the exact link between play and learning (Pellegrini & Smith, 2008, p. 1).  It is suggested that there should be a balance between genuine play with ‘freedom’ and intentional teaching, which involves educators being purposeful, thoughtful and deliberate in their actions and decisions (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15).

There can be many benefits when utilising intentional teaching, but there must also be an awareness that any experience can as easily derail a child’s curiosity, as it can propel a child’s intellectual energy, ensuring their intrinsic motivation (Higgins & Nicol, 2002, p. 7).

Much of children’s play within the Kindergarten setting could be described as ‘experiential learning,’ originating with Dewey (Weinstein, 2015, p. 28). Children are wanting to stretch beyond the known as a result of their curiosity being fuelled through quality, hands on, concrete, and spontaneous play experiences (R. Moore, 2014, p. 33).  When children encounter a problem, they have the option of trying different strategies until one works (trial and error), or they can access prior knowledge where they move beyond the actual experience or situation to more abstract exploration of solutions (Quay, 2012, p. 152; Quay & Seaman, 2013, p. 81). If to move forward in this experience requires effort, “The significant thing is that effort is diverted into thinking”. Hence “the emotion of effort, or of stress, is a warning to think, to consider, to reflect, to inquire” (Dewey 1913b: 49-51 Quay, 2013, p. 182). Thus the opportunity for critical thinking, especially metacognition is provided. However, it needs to be noted that there is always an aspect of trial and error when solving a problem, as the even the most rationally considered thought has be to be tried out within the experience.

Kochanska, Coy and Murray’s research identified that the period from infancy through preschool age is critical for the emergence of self-regulator capacities (2001, p. 1106). Their research noted that during this time children’s capacities are volatile, having the potential to improve, decline or remain static (p. 1107).  Whitebread and O’Sullivan explain that metacognition is involved in controlling cognition, whereas behaviour including motivation (will), social, and cognitive aspects come under the umbrella of self-regulation (2012, p. 198). Research highlights that self-regulation is a key component for later academic success (McClelland, John Geldhof, Cameron, & Wanless, 2015, pp. 1-2; Sawyer et al., 2015, p. 745), and helping children become effective lifelong learners (de la Harpe & Radloff, 2000, p. 170).  Usher & Pajares highlight “a key determinant of whether learners employ self-regulatory strategies rests in the beliefs they hold about their capabilities to do so” (2008, p. 444).

Therefore, it is important that children are intrinsically motivated, and that they have a ‘can do attitude” or a positive mindset (Dweck, 1999), linking in with Albert Bandura’s Self-efficacy theory.  Children’s attempts at goals and challenges is highly dependent on their self-efficacy.

Children who have a strong sense of self-efficacy: Children who have a weak sense of self-efficacy:
•       view challenging problems as tasks to be mastered

•       develop a deeper interest in the experiences they take part in

•       have a strong sense of commitment to their interests and experiences

•       recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments.

•       avoid being challenged

•       believe they are unable to overcome difficulties

•       focus on their limited skills, and negative outcomes

•       don’t have confidence in their own abilities

(Allen & Gordon, 2012, p. 7; Usher & Pajares, 2008, p. 456)

Bandura explains that underpinning beliefs and attitudes start to form in early childhood, thus highlighting the need to support these characteristics in young children (Allen & Gordon, 2012, p. 7). Children who have a weak sense of self-efficacy, will have difficulty self-regulating their learning, and are more likely to give up when faced with a problem or challenge (Usher & Pajares, 2008, p. 456).

The major experiences affecting self-efficacy include:

  • Mastery experiences: being successful in performing tasks
  • Social modelling: seeing other people complete tasks successfully
  • Social persuasion: verbal encouragement and constructive feedback
  • Psychological response: feelings, emotions, physical reactions and stress for example, a sense of belonging

(Allen & Gordon, 2012, p. 7)

Given the importance of the early-childhood stage in building the child’s self-efficacy, the outdoor risky play encounters afforded by the Kindergarten setting offer an ideal opportunity to provide these positive experiences.  Less well known however, is that Kindergartens are directed by a framework (EYLF), rather than a content-driven curriculum, which places less emphasis upon specific domains, and thus provides more opportunity to integrate concepts such as critical thinking across all learning experiences.

Within Kindergartens, educators’ image of the child has significant impact on how the program is implemented. Research argues that we need to start early, seeing children as “individuals with thoughts, goals feelings and intentions” and through this ‘image of the child’ critical thinking would become part of the educative culture rather than an additional program (Lizarraga, Baquedano, & Villanueva, 2012, p. 277).


Links between Critical thinking and Outdoor Risky Play

As has been discussed, many children are drawn to risky play, Teacher Tom (2015) explains “critical thinking as being the best safety precaution for children there is …, young children are capable of assessing … day-to-day risks, but only if they’ve had the chance to practice; only if they’re well versed in the art of critical thinking.” Thus it makes pedagogical sense to provide children with opportunities for risky play, as well as the skills to self-asses the level of risk.

Two questions are highlighted for future research: The first is are young children intrinsically using critical thinking in their risk-taking play?  Ball et al., states that “most children naturally regulate their exposure to the good risks … such as the risk of falling from height … how high to climb, … jump” (2012, p. 30). Bruce, Ungar, & Waschbusch’s research showed that the ability to attend to thinking about risk is diverse in children. In their research, the children (10-12 year olds) who identified thinking about risk also discussed being responsible for their actions, and considered the options as well as the possible consequences when approaching a risk.  One child explained “you have to think how to do it … And it makes it less risky.”  Thus “cognitive appraisal of risk was integral to their consideration of risk” (2009, p. 192).

Bruce et al., suggest that “risk perception may be conceived as requiring both cognitive and social strategies” as risk-taking can be intentional (planned risk taking) or it can be behavioural willingness (consciously planning to take a risk but not planning to avoid one), highlighting the importance of equipping children with the ability to think through their options, and to take responsibility for their choices (Bruce et al., 2009, p. 195).

The second question is based on the outcome of the first question, if children are observed to be intrinsically utilising critical thinking, is this an opportunity for educators to alert children to the skills and dispositions they are using, with the possibility of transference into other aspects of their education? Linking back to Perkins, Jay and Tishman’s (1993, p. 2) triadic dispositional theory, if we show children they already have the ability and inclination, we can further develop their sensitivity to, and awareness of opportunities to utilise their skills.  Stephenson (2003, p. 41) highlights that many educators believe “that there is a fundamental link between a young child’s developing confidence in confronting physical challenges, and her confidence to undertake risks of quite different kinds in other learning contexts”,  leading to a risk-taker disposition which could be a research inquiry in itself (Costa 1991 cited in Stephenson, 2003, p. 41).

A further extension to this question, is if children aren’t using critical thinking within their risky play, is this a teaching opportunity missed? “Many children fail to think about their thinking. They do not think about how they think, which means they cannot control their information processing” (Hyde & Bizar, 1989, p. 51). Bruce, Ungar & Waschbush (2009, p. 195) indicated that an intervention strategy could be to develop mechanisms helping children to consider the potential risk-taking situation in ways “that ensure a more accurate assessment of risk”, thus identifying this is a teachable opportunity helping them “to engage in the “self-planning, self-monitoring, self-regulating, self-questioning, self-reflecting, self-reviewing” that is necessary to critical thinking and learning” (Hyde & Bizar, 1989, p. 51).

Showing that others have considered these relationships before, there is some research into the possible integration of ‘thinking skills’ into young children’s movement programs (Chen & Cone, 2003, p. 170; Buschner, 1988 cited in McBride, 1999, p. 117), but as is the case with linking critical thinking and risky play, such research is limited.

McBride (1991, p. 19) puts forward a theoretical model of critical thinking in the psychomotor domain (a physical action that supports or is a vehicle for cognitive growth), as he explains “before examination can occur, some form of schematic representation linking critical thinking to physical education needs to be developed’ (1992, p. 117). Figure 1 attempts to provide a schematic representation of the critical-thinking process in physical education. The Schema is a four-phased model, it includes “Cognitive organisation, cognitive action, cognitive outcomes and psychomotor outcomes”.


Figure 2 Mc Brides Critical Thinking Schema

McBride’s Critical Thinking Schema (McBride, 1999, p. 118):

  • First step: when a problem requests the discovery of a movement or an idea, the cognitive organisation is activated, as long as the child is able to focus on the problem-challenge and asks questions.
  • Second step: is cognitive action and refers to the ability to use the information generated during the previous step, to make judgments and to formulate hypotheses (cognitive action in movement–knowledge of how various locomotor, stability, and manipulative patterns were executed and modulated).
  • Third and Fourth steps: the production of cognitive and psychomotor outcomes is activated. During these steps, critical thinking is required to decide whether a solution is different and to use criteria (knowledge of movement elements: space, effort, and relationship) for the planning of novel or modified movement patterns (Trevlas, Grammatikopoulos, Tsigilis, & Zachopoulou, 2003, p. 537).

According to McBride, (1991, p. 19) in order to evoke critical thinking, children need to be pushed out of the traditional challenge-response mode of learning, towards a crisis or stressful situation which requires assessment, generating hypotheses and thinking through the problem, rather than relying upon their ability to simply rote memorise and recall information . Risky play could provide exactly the type of crisis McBride advocates, as an automatic response is seldom available due to the new experiences afforded by environment.

Such experiences in risky outdoor play provide an opportunity to explore thinking about thinking, introducing children to the concept of metacognition and reflection-thinking within the context of concrete, physical experiences. These are by their nature easier to unpack than cognitive achievements, which are often invisible and harder to discuss. By making children aware of these concepts, further exploration about the processes of problem solving and critical thinking can occur, utilising the language and techniques laid down in earlier discussion. Research has shown that one of the key traits good problem-solvers possess is highly developed metacognition, when they discover a problem, they “stop, analyse and reflect” (Papaleontiou-Louca, 2003, p. 21).

McBride’s Critical thinking schema could in fact be a practical resource for exploring children’s critical thinking during risky play, even though critical thinking is not a simplistic systematic process, and thus this would provide a framework only, providing direction for educators on where to stop and explore ‘thinking about thinking’. His classification of cognitive steps makes it clear to educators how to asses the child’s current stage of critical thinking, and when to scaffold and model critical thinking.

To explore the questions posed, it’s suggested that the Mosaic approach (Clark, 2001, p. 334)   be utilised, as it is a multi-method framework, and is flexible allowing researchers to fine tune it to meet their needs.

It combines traditional methodology;

  • Interviews: group, one-to-one, child conferencing, group interviews, or child to child interviews
  • Observations: spontaneous, planned, written, photographic, video, audio, photo essays


Child-participatory tools;

  • Cameras: children as photographers researching; the photos can be used as prompts for discussion, memory aids, and a source of data
  • Tours: children take researchers on a tour of the environment, in this case locations for risk taking opportunities, this is directed and recorded by the children
  • Mapping: 2D representations of the research topic, using children’s own photographs and drawing, this can involve independent or collaborative drawing. Researchers have discovered that listening to young children talk during the drawing process provides an opportunity to understand their thinking, and the influence of peers (Coates & Coates, 2006, p. 226; S. Dockett & Perry, 2005).
  • Role-play: this provides an opportunity for children communicate their thoughts and feelings physically, using their whole body.

(Clark, 2005a, pp. 294-296; 2005b, p. 14)

Through the use of inductive analysis, patterns, themes and categories are identified through each tool coming together to create a Mosaic, which provides the basis for dialogue, interpretation and reflection with adults and children (Clark, 2001, p. 334).

A valid rationale for using this Mosaic approach, which combines a number of strategies, is that it could be seen as a way to seek specific constant “within method triangulation” through comparison of observations and interviews (E. B. H Sandseter, 2007, p. 241). Another rationale links back to the child-participatory approach, that a range of strategies allows children to choose how they will participate, whilst also acknowledging the diverse range of competencies children have (Dockett et al., 2009, p. 284). As Flewitt explained, children make and express meaning in a variety of ways, which may be overshadowed by the current emphasis on talking and listening (2005, p. 221), so educators need to be aware that no one strategy is the answer to understanding children.

Consideration of child-participatory tools can be seen as a consequence of the change from researching children, to researching with children, which was set in motion by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (United Nations, 1989) and the statement issued as General Comment 7 (United Nations, 2005). The Convention has changed the way children are viewed and treated – children are “conceptualised as competent interactional beings, able to participate in decisions that affect them” (Theobald & Kultti, 2012, p. 20), “beings rather than becomings” (Qvortrup, 1994 cited in Dockett, Einarsdottir, & Perry, 2009, p. 284).

Researchers need to be mindful of the power dynamics, ensuring that they modify not only the name of the methodological approach, but also their practice.  As Moore, (2014, p. 8) states, even with clearly articulated methodology, past paradigms can infiltrate practice with adults working from an “interrogative perspective” in the dominant position, even though the plan had been to share the research endeavour with children.

When children join research and are included in the process of analysis and interpretation, the results will be more authentic, representing childrens’ perspectives, rather than researcher’s interpretation of them (Sue Dockett et al., 2009, p. 291). As researchers are making the shift to engage in research with children, seeking their perspective is a complex process (Sue Dockett et al., 2009, p. 295), with many ethical issues requiring contemplation prior to and during research.


What children learn can count as knowledge or skill, which can manifest as the ability to do something they previously could not, or adds to their understanding of the world.  Much of this is below the “threshold of introspection in the learner’s mind and may remain there for years” (Carr & Claxton, 2002, p. 248). Kindergarten is a critical time, as it is here that dispositions for learning are reinforced, modified or for some, started through their experiences and social interactions with peers and educators.  The ability to think critically, understanding when it should be applied, and making the choice to do so, is a skill for life and learning.  Outdoor risky play provides an opportunity to support children in identifying when they are, or should be utilizing critical thinking skills and dispositions, so this may be an easy and effective approach to introducing these ‘thinking about thinking’ habits of mind.

Clearly there is insufficient data from which to draw solid conclusions, so more research, particularly within kindergartens offering these types of experiences, is required in order to confirm or dismiss this hypothesis.  As mentioned, the Mosaic approach would offer some unique benefits, to researchers in this field.



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